Not sheepish: Ledger, Gyllenhaal rise to roles

Brokeback Mountain is one of the year's most romantic films, and the romance happens to be between two men. Apparently Focus Features' focus groups determined that enough gay men and straight women would go to see two straight male actors in a love story to make it profitable. Some curious men will be glad to be asked to escort women, as long as they can appear reluctant.

Their agents must have felt that, with Jarhead and Casanova set for release around the same time, it was safe for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to mess with their images. Tom Cruise and John Travolta weren't clamoring for the parts.

Based on a short story by Annie Proulx adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain is about two men torn between following their hearts and following society's rules in a time and place where choices were not necessarily options. (Matthew Shepard's death, the year after Proulx wrote her story, showed things hadn't changed much in Wyoming in three and a half decades.)

In the summer of 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) tend an isolated herd of sheep for rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). Perhaps because you know what's coming, the opening scene, before Ennis and Jack meet, could as easily be two gay men cruising each other as two straight men sizing each other up.

The relatively loquacious Jack rides in rodeos when he can afford the entry fee. The totally repressed Ennis sticks to ranching. "You may be a sinner," he tells Jack, "but I ain't had the opportunity." He gets the opportunity, if you consider it sin, about half an hour into the movie when there's a cold night, a lot of liquor, a little snuggling, and suddenly pants and inhibitions come tumbling down.

You might be a redneck if... your response to the sex scene is, "What do they need each other for when they've got all those sheep?" (Two men, a thousand sheep– you do the math.)

The question may occur to people of various-colored necks until they get to know the characters better, because the men don't reveal a lot about themselves when they get together twice a day for meals. After sex there's a certain level of agreement:

Ennis: You know, this is a one-shot thing we got goin' on here.

Jack: It's nobody's business but ours.

Ennis: I ain't queer.

Jack: Me neither.

Summer ends early after Aguirre spies some shirtless roughhousing between the men, intimacy being more comfortable when there's violence involved– their fighting looks more erotic than their lovemaking.

What happens on Brokeback Mountain stays on Brokeback Mountain, and they don't see each other for four years. During that time, Ennis marries his fiancée, Alma (Michelle Williams), gives her two daughters, then flips her over for the sex he prefers. Jack returns to the rodeo circuit, where he meets wealthy Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), marries her, and goes to work for her father (Graham Beckel), who despises him.

A postcard from Jack excites Ennis. For the next several years, the two "fishing buddies" go away together two or three times a year. Jack periodically suggests they get a ranch together ("It could be like this, just like this, always"), especially after Ennis and Alma are divorced; but Ennis, haunted by a childhood memory of a gay couple, won't hear of it. "We can get together once in a while in the middle of nowhere," is the best he has to offer.

More years go by with Ennis suppressing his gay side except when he's with Jack, and neither able to commit romantically to anyone but the other. Ennis has an affair with a waitress (Linda Cardellini) while Jack crosses the border to patronize hustlers in Juarez.

Brokeback Mountain being a classic love story, don't expect an ending happier than those of Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind, or The Way We Were.

Eclectic director Ang Lee has arthouse cred from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the first foreign-language film to break the $100 million barrier at the U.S. box office. In addition to capturing the atmospheres and emotions of Brokeback Mountain, he does a beautiful job of compressing the events of nearly two decades into just over two hours and keeping them flowing.

The actors are excellent. Ledger, who sounds like he learned his American accent watching Sling Blade, has the more difficult role and redeems himself for his performances in Lords of Dogtown and Casanova. Gyllenhaal is also believable as a man who knows what he wants but has trouble finding a context for it.


There's more casual intimacy between them than hot sex or passionate kissing, but keeping gay men away from this movie will be as hard as keeping Ennis and Jack off each other. Other viewers will have mixed reactions, but a quite a few will be surprised at how much they like it.